Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Olivetti rotary telephone c. 1940 (Wikipedia)
It is mindboggling how much the communications revolution bettered the quality of our lives. It made our world smaller, our endeavors easier and our contacts with family and friends quasi-instantaneous.

Telephone, telex, fax, email, mobile and smart phones, Skype, Instant Messaging, Twitter, Facebook, Gtalk and so many means of communication are now taken for granted by countless people, but it wasn't the case not too long ago.

Photo by Kinan Jarjous (@jarofjuice) of his Teta's phone (see comments)
Does anyone remember the old-time Telephone -- that black dial instrument that you only find in vintage and antique shops today?

And before you start wondering: no, I wasn't around in 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell invented the Telephone or in 1915, when he made the first transcontinental call.

But I do remember our black telephone in Tunis. It was on a chest near the entrance, with a telephone number agenda by the side. It hardly rang. It was too expensive to call overseas and too inconvenient, especially when you had to pass through the dreaded operator. When it did ring, it usually meant bad news or that my dad was being called back to work. To get through to Beirut from Tunis often took two days after you placed the call with the operator. But it was still easier to use than go through the abominable process of sending a telegram.

During the civil war in Beirut, telephone lines were down most of the time. But if after a bad spell of shelling lines came back to life, albeit briefly, we still tried to ring someone, anyone, merely to inquire about the safety of family and friends and boast about our own resilience and survival. You first had to get the dial tone. That sometimes took hours. Then you'd dial and redial time and again, hoping you would connect. It hardly ever did. So we lived without telephones and had to relay word or get things done in person.

Then, around the mid-1970s, someone came to see my editor and marveled about this new machine called a facsimile, or fax, which allowed you to send, through a telephone line, typed or handwritten documents or pictures from one place to another, either within or outside your country! You can imagine the excitement and revolutionary impact of those words, especially when trying to publish a newsweekly in the middle of a civil war.

The only company that was operating a fax machine in Beirut at the time was 3M. So I was sent to their offices in Gefinor to have a look. My feedback was that it would be pointless for us to get the machine before telephone lines became operational and before our correspondents acquired one to send and receive.

It was the same story when I moved to London and my mom Vicky was in Beirut. I could try for hours to get through – at an exorbitant cost -- just to make sure she was okay.

Manning the (pre-Cheetah) Puma telex next to a fax machine in London
The desktop publishing offices where I was working at the time had telex and fax machines. The tic-tic and tac-tac of our telex machine – a state of the art Cheetah -- went on and on all day as we received our dispatches from correspondents in the Middle East. Most of them still didn't have fax machines. And I discovered while I was writing this that our British Telecom Cheetah telex now figures in the British Telecom Museum of Memorial Pages.

The Cheetah Electronic Telex
But the mobile telephones started appearing on the market. At first, those huge contraptions looked more like a brick stuck to your ear. Then they got smaller and lighter. Mobile users looked a bit odd at the beginning – as if talking to themselves on the street or on the bus. This, until we got used to the idea that everyone had a mobile phone and something very important to say at all times.

The real revolution for me started with email. (The year 1988 saw the first authorized use of commercial email on the Internet. In 1989 the CompuServe mail system was connected through the Ohio State University network and in 1993 AOL connected their system to the Internet and email became global.)
This is when I was able to be in daily touch with my best friends in Beirut, Zepure and Yorki through CompuServe. It was a godsend to be able to talk and catch up without worrying about the line cutting or spending a fortune. And when we did get together, every year in London, the conversation continued where it had left off in the last email.

So by then, I had my mobile phone and I could send and receive emails! And little by little, more and more family and friends were doing the same and we were able to communicate more frequently and send each other pictures. Except that my sister Asma, didn't really get into the whole email thing and my brother Emile was always working in remote places where communication was difficult. So we stuck to the telephone... until emails caught up eventually.

But the greatest addition to my life is Skype, the software application that makes life so much better and easier.

About two months ago my brother sent Asma a laptop. And after a week of moaning, screaming, fighting and explaining via phone calls to Cannes from Dubai, the laptop was up and running. And, miracle of miracles, Asma even managed to install Skype.

So although we are miles apart, we can now talk or video call at any time of day or night, depending on our work schedules. It's good to get home and know you can share your day’s thoughts and happenings with your sister. She can criticize my hair, inspect how I look and wonder what I'm wearing. In turn, I can see what she's eating and how my cabbage and beetroot salad turned out. The two of us even conference chat with our cousin Lillian in Beirut. So there we are -- in Cannes, Dubai and Beirut all sharing a pleasant evening together.
It even got better because while we chatting a couple of days ago we saw our brother's name appear on Skype. We couldn't believe it. Emile had refused to get on the bandwagon, claiming he didn't want to have the two of us checking on him day and night! But he's on now, and we feel much better since he is posted in Lagos and we keep worrying about him. I was able to talk to my sister-in-law Sally, to see my nephew Jack arrive home from work in his suit and tie… and Sydney, their 15-year-old black Labrador fast asleep in the living room. 

This fantastic evolution in telephony has added so much to my everyday life. It's good to talk! But oops, I’ve go to go -- Asma is calling on Skype...

(Update: This post was kindly carried by on their blog on October 27, 2010. is a unified platform for converged communication that tends to the user’s communication needs. Operating in the U.S., Europe, South America, the Middle East, and Africa, the Telephone team is dedicated to supplying cutting-edge technology that caters to the user’s growing communication needs in a sleek easy-to-use interface.)